Every director starts somewhere. There’s always that first picture. For many directors, their first movie is either a trial-by-fire (see David Fincher and Alien3), a promising start (see Neil Marshall and Dog Soldiers) or something that they, and we, would rather forget ever happened (see James Cameron and Piranha II: Flying Killers).

There are some debuts, however, that announce a new talent completely. These are not just first movies, but manifestos. They scream out ‘this is what I can do, keep watching this space’. After this, the filmmaker either makes good on his promise or spends his career struggling to escape the shadow of it. That is the double-edged sword of a great debut. It really can be a blessing or a curse.

Here, for your delectation and sport, are my ten favourite directorial debuts. It was a tough one to whittle down. What would you have added, or subtracted, from the list?

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10. Night of the Living Dead

George A. Romero (1968)

The movie which, along with Psycho, is credited with giving birth to the modern horror film, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is a master class in low-budget success. With its simple premise and unpretentious style, Romero creates a gripping, chilling experience which has influenced every zombie movie since. Made for only $114,000, Night of the Living Dead was also one of the first movies to feature a black lead actor in a predominantly white cast.

Romero has continued adding to the zombie movie canon with no less than six entries in his ‘Dead’ series, inspiring the likes of Edgar Wright who paid homage with Shaun of the Dead.

Went on to make: Dawn, Day, Land, Diary, and Survival….of the Dead

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9. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind

George Clooney (2002)

When original director Bryan Singer dropped out of making this story of the life (fictional or otherwise) of game show host, and CIA spy, Chuck Barris, actor George Clooney stepped in. Clooney brought to the movie not just a keen eye for a shot, and a some entertaining panache with his scene changes, but also a refined sense of 60s and 70s period detail brought with him from his childhood spent with father Nick Clooney, who actually had his own game show during that period. Look out for the quick, very funny, cameo appearances from Brad Pitt and Matt Damon.

Clooney followed Confessions of a Dangerous Mind with the equally accomplished Goodnight and Good Luck, again paying homage to a magic era of television.

Went on to make: Goodnight and Good Luck, Leatherheads

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8. This is Spinal Tap

Rob Reiner (1984)

Rob Reiner, son of director Carl, didn’t just direct his debut movie, but also shared the writing credit with its three stars as well as taking a lead role. The now legendary mockumentary follows fictional English band Spinal Tap on tour in the US to promote their album ‘Smell the Glove’. Along the way the pretentious, dim-witted trio paint an hilarious picture of the shallowness and ridiculousness of the music industry. With endlessly quotable dialogue, mostly ad-libbed, This is Spinal Tap is the very definition of ‘cult movie’.

Reiner enjoyed a fantastic spell for the next decade, but his output has waned in the last ten years.

Went on to make: The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally, Misery

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7. Citizen Kane

Orson Welles (1941)

Having terrorised half of America with his radio production of War of the Worlds, Orson Welles turned to cinema and produced what has become the default No.1 in many a movie critic’s list of top movies. The tale of a fictional newspaper magnate, Citizen Kane is an astounding debut feature. Welles’ extensive use of deep-focus and low-angle shots was innovative, as was the non-linear narrative told from multiple viewpoints. And, despite the real-life magnate William Randolph Hearst’s attempts to kill the project through his own media empire, Citizen Kane has gone on to become one of cinema’s greats.

Although Welles made some other great movies, topping Citizen Kane was a very tall order. A lot of crap followed.

Went on to make: The Magnificent Ambersons, Touch of Evil

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6. Airplane!

Jerry and David Zucker, Jim Abrahams (1980)

An extremely rare triple debut here, with the two Zuckers and Abrahams (or ZAZ) sharing both writing and directing duties on their hugely successful and influential comedy. Spoofing the disaster movie genre in general, and the 1957 movie Zero Hour! in particular, ZAZ created one of the most popular and oft-quoted comedies of all time. Featuring inspired turns from an array of 60s and 70s icons and a joke at least every 30 seconds, Airplane! has an inexhaustible energy which doesn’t let up until the credits have stopped rolling.

The movie set the pattern for the bulk of ZAZ’s work, but only Jerry Zucker achieved the same level of success again with Ghost.

Went on to make (between them): The Naked Gun movies, Ghost, Hot Shots

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5. Night of the Hunter

Charles Laughton (1955)

Actor Charles Laughton’s one and only movie still counts as a debut. And what a debut it is. Dark, brooding and nasty, Night of the Hunter features a career best performance from Robert Mitchum as the psychopathic Reverend Harry Powell, who charms his way into the family of widow Willa, in an attempt to locate the whereabouts of her executed husband’s stolen loot. Heavily influenced by German expressionism, Laughton paints stark, surreal vistas and fills the movie with a cloying sense of paranoia and fear.

Poorly received on its release, Laughton never made another movie and died seven years later. This was a real loss to the medium, such is the wealth of talent on evidence here.

Went on to make: Nothing

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4. The Evil Dead

Sam Raimi (1981)

It’s amazing what you can achieve with just $375,000, a swimming pool worth of fake blood and Bruce Campbell. In Sam Raimi’s case you can achieve one of the most successful, and creative, horror movies of the 80s. When five friends go to stay in an old cabin in the woods, they become possessed by demons, one by one, until only one of their number remains to survive until morning. With no access to expensive special effects or equipment, Raimi demonstrates remarkable ingenuity with his camerawork.

The Evil Dead gave cinema its first glimpse of Raimi’s love for over-the-top, slapstick violence, dizzying camera movement and torturing Campbell.

Went on to make: The Spider-man trilogy

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3. Donnie Darko

Richard Kelly (2001)

Given his big break by Drew Barrymore’s production company, Richard Kelly produced one of the most original movies to have come along for years. Donnie Darko is a strange brew, mixing time-travel, high-school angst, 80s nostalgia, existentialism and Patrick Swayze in a haunting, complex and sometimes downright bemusing tale. This was Jake Gyllenhaal’s breakout role and he’s the perfect fit for the troubled, intense and disjointed Donnie. Kelly later released a Director’s Cut which didn’t really improve on the original.

Kelly’s penchant for inscrutable storytelling continued with his next two movies, but escaping the shadow of his debut has proven difficult so far.

Went on to make: The terrible Southland Tales and the intriguing The Box

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2. Withnail and I

Bruce Robinson (1987)

Bruce Robinson’s 1987 directorial debut is one of those that can curse a subsequent career. Not because it is bad, but because it is brilliant. An extremely tough act to follow. Based on Robinson’s unpublished novel, which in turn was based on his own experiences as a young actor, Withnail and I is without doubt one of the best British comedies of all time. Anchored by a magnificent performance from Richard E. Grant as the manipulative, drunken Withnail and littered with an array of bizarre characters, Withnail and I has since gathered a huge cult following.

Robinson reunited with Grant for 1989’s How to Get Ahead in Advertising but, as yet, has not achieved the same success as he did with his debut.

Went on to make: Very little.

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1. Duel

Steven Spielberg (1971)

Fresh from directing stints on various TV shows, the young Spielberg was handed his first feature-length assignment, a made-for-TV movie based on a Richard Matheson short story, which was in turn based on the writer’s own experience with a particularly nasty truck driver. Spielberg took the story of a travelling salesman’s (Dennis Weaver) relentless pursuit by a truck and crafted a tense, stylish movie which was eventually rewarded with additional shooting time and a cinema release.

Duel demonstrates much of the themes that would become signature for the director; the everyman protagonist in an extraordinary situation, action scenes on the move and the relentless, pursuing monster. It is to the movie’s credit that you never see the face of the truck’s driver.

Went on to make: Everything

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Having been shot in a gun fight and put into a coma, County Sheriff Rick Grimes wakes up in hospital to find the world around him significantly changed. The hospital has been trashed, corpses are everywhere and the streets are deserted. Sort of. Long story short, there are zombies. Lots of them. After an encounter with two survivors, Grimes determines to head for Atlanta to find his missing wife and son.

After all the hype surrounding Frank Darabont’s TV show The Walking Dead, the first episode, Days Gone Bye, finally aired to record numbers. Zombies, who have shuffled around cinemas for decades, have at last discovered television. Based on the Image comic books, and produced by Gale Anne Hurd (the Terminator movies), The Walking Dead is admittedly a very familiar story; world + zombies + survivors = horror fun!  But with Executive Producer Darabont, no stranger to horror, both writing and directing the pilot episode this was always going to be worth the time.

Truth be told, I don’t watch much television. I haven’t seen one episode of 24 or Lost, fell out of love with Star Trek years ago, and save my viewing time for movies. Then I read about The Walking Dead and, frankly, they had me at ‘Frank Darabont to make zombie television show’. Say no more. Having just watched the pilot episode, I’m glad I decided to set aside the 90 minutes. Okay, this is never going to win any originality awards (the genre is way past that) but all the ingredients are right there for something special. The set-up is similar to that of 28 Days Later, with the lead character waking up in hospital to find everyone gone. However, unlike the marathon runners of Danny Boyle’s infestation movie, the zombies of The Walking Dead are back to the classic shuffling undead in the Romero mould. Personally, I prefer them that way. Call me petty, but zombies should shuffle. It’s my thing.

Frank Darabont, who excelled with a TV production crew on The Mist, delivers an atmospheric and engaging pilot episode. The scenes in the hospital, as the bemused Grimes finds the first clues as to what happened while he slept, are spooky, haunting and will bring an approving smile to the face of even the most discerning zombie fan. As will the fact that television hasn’t dulled or restricted the icky factor. Darabont is incapable of overlooking the human element and there is a particularly moving scene involving a survivor and his wife. However, it was when the story moved to deserted, zombie infested, Atlanta that The Walking Dead really impressed, and I knew for certain that I was hooked. Damn you, Darabont! Now I’m one of those people desperate for the next episode! I’m a zombie!

Like a bad day, only worse.

There’s an old saying: if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. It’s a self-evident adage that the good folk in Hollywood clearly haven’t embraced, as they continue to churn out an endless series of movie remakes. This year has seen the release of Clash of the Titans, The Wolfman, The Crazies, Edge of Darkness and Nightmare on Elm Street, and these will soon be joined by True Grit, Red Dawn, The Karate Kid, The Mechanic and Red Sonja. Then there is Let Me In, the US remake of the Swedish Let the Right One In. Together with the numerous sequels that are a regular fixture during a year’s movie output (and I’ve complained about those already), this signifies a remarkable amount of money being funnelled into yet more unoriginal ideas.

The funny thing about remakes is this; more often than not, either the original was so good that there’s nothing you can improve upon, or so bad that it really should have been left alone in the first place. But sometimes, just sometimes, a movie had such potential and was so screwed up in its execution, that a remake seems a valid and worthwhile endeavour. And, yes, sometimes even a movie that was good to begin with is improved on the second attempt. However, these are the exceptions, rather than the rule, and more often than not great movies receive the unnecessary makeovers. The popular brand is squeezed for every last penny.

For me, there are two kinds of the more unforgivable remake. Firstly, there’s the simple cash-in remake, where a classic movie is regurgitated for the sole purpose of pulling money from a new generation of cinemagoers who fear movies made before they were born, perhaps because the clothes look silly and the music is embarrassing.  Secondly, there are the translation remakes, where a popular foreign movie is regurgitated for cinemagoers that fear having to read subtitles and can’t deal with a cast that all have black hair. Or something. Both categories are infuriating for their own reasons, but mostly because they very, very rarely do the original any justice.

Then there are those remakes that take the basic outline of the original and change everything else around it, such as the setting and the characters. At least the bulk of these demonstrate a little creativity. Good examples are The Magnificent Seven (The Seven Samurai as a Western), or Outland (High Noon in space).

Of course, a special mention has to go to the recent trend for announcing remakes by alternative labels. ‘Reboot’ is a popular one. Tim Burton coined the phrase ‘re-imagining’ for his appalling Planet of the Apes, perhaps offended by the suggestion that he was remaking anything. He has subsequently ‘re-imagined’ Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland.

What follows is my list of the five best and the five worst remakes over the years, in my oh-so-humble opinion. You should know, I was planning to avoid using movies that were based on books. To my mind, these aren’t really remakes so much as re-adaptations (Listen to me. I sound like Tim Burton). However, a good friend told me I was being ridiculously anal, so I ditched that restriction. Thanks, Maggie.

Please feel free to comment with your own suggestions.

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The Good Remakes

Always (1989)

Original 1943

Steven Spielberg’s remake of World War II romantic drama A Guy Named Joe shifts the story to modern day North America, replacing bomber pilots with aerial forest-fire fighters. Richard Dreyfuss replaces Spencer Tracey as the pilot who must become guardian angel to his girlfriend (Holly Hunter) and her new prospective man, after he is killed in an accident. This is one of Spielberg’s lesser known movies, released just after Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and possibly lost in the wake of Ghost. Always is a reminder that the most successful director of all time can deliver a quietly touching romance just as well as a rollercoaster blockbuster or heavy drama. Dreyfuss and Hunter are quite possibly one of cinema’s cutest couples, and Brad Johnson is entirely likeable as the hapless beefcake trying to heal Hunter’s grief and win her over. Always also features Audrey Hepburn’s final screen appearance, as Dreyfuss’s angelic guide.

The Blob (1988)

Original 1958

Director Chuck Russell, having cut his teeth on Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, made a surprisingly entertaining addition to his CV with this remake of the classic B movie. This version is a lot more fun. With a script co-written by Frank Darabont (who would go on to make The Shawshank Redemption), The Blob retains its popcorn-munching, monster movie credentials, but always manages to stay just the right side of ridiculous. It keeps its tongue firmly in its cheek, while delivering a series of entertainingly grisly deaths at the hands, well, pseudopods of the acidic, carnivorous mass which terrorises a small American town. The Blob is just a pure piece of bubble-gum cinema, but also ruthless and a little unpredictable with the characters it disposes of, treating you to some sly misdirection as it dispatches people you could have sworn would be safe. Fun, right?

Dawn of the Dead (2004)

Original 1978

It takes some kind of self-confidence to decide that your debut movie will be a remake of one of horror’s most revered classics. Clearly not lacking in self-belief, Zack Snyder did just that, and the result was one of the best horror movie remakes to date. George Romero’s original, as with all of his zombie instalments, mixes horror movie thrills with social commentary, and Snyder is smart enough to realise that the critique on consumerism doesn’t need to be reinforced the second time around. Instead, the pettiness and pedantry of the human race in the face of extinction is explored in the interactions between the band of survivors, holed up in a shopping mall as the growing number of zombies look for a way in. The script is witty and intelligent, and throws in just the right mix of original material and knowing nods to its progenitor (look out for the appearance of Ken Foree and the Gaylen Ross store).

Freaky Friday (2003)

Original 1976

Before Lindsay Lohan imploded in bratty fashion, she was showing all the signs of a talent on the horizon. Shame. Taking the Jodi Foster role of a girl who swaps bodies with her mother, Lohan was both convincing and funny. Jamie Lee Curtis, who stepped into the mother’s shoes when Annette Bening stepped out, turned out to be the ideal choice to portray a teenage girl in a woman’s body, and matches Lohan for comedy value at every turn. Freaky Friday is a guilty pleasure, to be sure, and not the kind of movie you’re supposed to admit liking during talk of great cinema, but who cares? It’s funny, well-observed and most importantly to this topic, it’s better than the original. Hey, my tastes are eclectic. Deal with it.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Original 1956

Don Siegel’s original adaptation of Jack Finney’s novel was by no means a bad film needing a remake. The story of a man who discovers that people are being replaced by emotionless duplicates, grown from alien pods, was an effective exercise in post-war paranoia. However, when writer and director Philip Kaufman made his own version, he took the paranoia and tension to much greater levels. Donald Sutherland takes the role of Matthew, who along with a group of growing (and then dwindling) survivors, tries to defeat the threat from the alien pods. Kaufman creates an almost unbearable atmosphere of threat and doom from the simplest of scenes, and the score is often a pared down series of noises and hums, which just adds to the unsettling mood. The sense of mistrust between the characters, and the tension as they attempt to move among the pod replicas, unable to display even the slightest emotion for fear of being discovered, is palpable. Invasion of the Body Snatchers has moments that are genuinely horrific, and the final scene will live in your mind for a very long time.

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See also: The Thing, Ocean’s Eleven, The Departed, Scarface and The Fly.

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The Bad Remakes

Halloween (2007)

Original 1978

Rob Zombie claims to be a huge fan of John Carpenter’s original, so what he thought he could achieve by remaking it is a mystery. Zombie’s Halloween fails on just about every level, but his biggest mistake is in giving the faceless, implacable killer Michael Myers a complete back story. Zombie spends half the movie doing what Carpenter managed with a five minute opening scene and a few choice Donald Pleasance lines. Do we really care about Myers’ childhood? Does his oedipal fixation make him any more interesting or scary? And does Zombie’s wife have to be in every movie he makes? Zombie’s fascination with redneck family life takes what was an effective, very scary movie icon, and reduces him to just another by-the-numbers moron with a mask and a knife. Also, in leaving himself with much less running time for the actual Halloween story itself, there is none of the build-up and tension which permeated Carpenter’s masterpiece. Zombie’s follow-up, Halloween II, is even worse. Stick with the original.

The Haunting (1999)

Original 1963

Cinematographer Jan de Bont had hit the jackpot with his directorial debut, Speed. With the keys to the kingdom, de Bont went from one turkey to the next, but never sank quite as low as he did with this misguided and badly executed remake of Robert Wise’s supernatural classic. It could have been okay, it might have worked. The sets are gorgeous, the actors do fine, even with a rather flimsy script. The big problem is that The Haunting isn’t scary. At all. In fact, it’s ridiculous. De Bont is too reliant on CGI effects and, quite frankly, animated wooden cherubs, moving beds and rooms that turn into giant faces are about as scary as a character from Toy Story. The tone is clumsy from the outset, lacking any real atmosphere or subtlety. Add to this a final act that is way, way, way over the top and what we have is an anti-horror movie.

King Kong (1976)

Original 1933

When legendary producer and master of hyperbole Dino De Laurentiis announced he would be remaking one of cinema’s most influential monster movies, he promised to deliver ‘the most exciting motion picture event of all time’. This version was to feature a forty-foot, fur covered, robot Kong, which would replace the original’s stop-motion animation and herald a new dawn in celluloid spectacle. However, the movie failed spectacularly to live up to any of its producer’s rash boasts. With a pedestrian script, camp performances and plodding direction, King Kong wasn’t even the most exciting motion picture event of the year, let alone all time. And the forty-foot robot ape, while actually built as promised, was such a dismal failure that it only appeared for about twenty seconds, standing still and lifting an arm slightly. Not much hope of getting that thing to climb the World Trade Center, then. The rest of the time Kong is portrayed by special effects guru Rick Baker in a gorilla suit, smashing around miniature sets like Godzilla. Dreadful.

The Ladykillers (2004)

Original 1955

I’m a big fan of the Coen brothers, so it pains me to take one of their movies and brand it a travesty. However, with The Ladykillers they leave little choice. Once again professing to be huge fans of the original, the Coens took Ealing Studio’s timeless comedy about a group of inept bank robbers lodging with a sweet old lady who turns out to be more than a match for them and moved it from 50s London to contemporary Mississippi. Tom Hanks is the sinister, but charming Professor, leading the band of oddball criminals to their eventual comeuppance. Despite his best efforts he never quite emerges from the shadow of the original’s excellent Alec Guiness. And that characterises the film as a whole. Woefully unfunny, especially from the makers of Fargo and The Big Lebowski, The Ladykillers is an unfortunate blemish on an otherwise remarkable body of work.

Psycho (1998)

Original 1960

Possible victor when they hand out the Most Pointless Remake Ever award. For reasons that may never be properly explained or understood, Gus Van Sant, hot off the success of Good Will Hunting, decided to remake Hitchcock’s seminal horror movie shot-for-shot. With Vince Vaughn as Norman Bates and Anne Heche as the doomed Marion Crane, Van Sant’s Psycho is a carbon copy of the original and as such can only suffer from the fact that it isn’t the original. The only noticeable difference is the addition of Bates masturbating as he watches Crane through the hole in the wall. You’re left wondering if Van Sant spent 38 years yearning to see Norman Bates spank his monkey, finally deciding to make his own Special Edition where his fantasy could be realised. Anthony Perkins made Bates a tragic, almost sympathetic figure, but for all his talents Vaughn just cannot do the same. Van Sant’s Psycho replicates the camerawork and editing of Hitchcock’s, but utterly fails to replicate the emotional punch. A meaningless exercise.

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See also: Planet of the Apes, The Fog, Get Carter, The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Hitcher.